WASHINGTON -- This fall's elections seem to hold little hope for Republicans, and even less hope for conservatives -- Republicans and conservatives these days being two separate sets that overlap far too seldom.
But plenty of time remains for legitimate expectations among both sets to rise. The way to do so is for the first set, Republicans, to again embrace the conservative set -- because, despite the conventional wisdom, it is conservatives, rightly understood, whose issues best appeal to the broad, non-ideological, only semi-political center which is where most Americans live.
To understand why Republican hopes are dependent on conservative solutions, we must consider the sorry record of this Congress (and, by extension, the president of the same party as Congress's majority) so far. After that, consider the opportunities afforded by the reality that the record, tactics, and ideology of elected national Democrats are even worse.
But first, understand that in politics, not all issues are created equal. Sometimes Congress actually can act responsibly without gaining any political advantage. Such was probably the case with a pension reform bill that recently advanced without, in the end, much controversy. Perhaps most Americans should care about an issue that in the long run will affect so many of their wallets, but the reality is that in the short run the particulars of the issue are too abstruse for most people to pay much attention to.
This is not to belittle those actions that amount to "doing the right thing when nobody is looking"; but only to say that in politics it is even more important to have the guts to do the right thing when everybody is looking, no matter whether the right thing is popular within the bizarro-world echo chamber that is Political Washington and its satellite offices at the New York Times and the major on-air networks.
In that light, the issues that matter are war-and-peace, domestic security, federal spending, household economic health, and the constellation of issues affected by the federal judiciary.
On each of these issues, Washington Republicans have been inept.
START WITH WAR. THE OVERTHROW of Saddam Hussein was a necessary war, at the right time, for reasons both moral and practical. And the traditional part of the war itself was a rousing success. But the Bush administration's handling of what was supposed to be the peace after the war has been fouled up from the very beginning: too few post-war troops on the ground, especially on the Iranian and Syrian borders; too little training in anti-guerilla tactics; too much infighting between the U.S. State and Defense Departments; too little understanding of Iraqi culture, caused in part by the horribly poor intelligence from an utterly dysfunctional CIA; too little understanding that areas once cleared of terrorists will be retaken by terrorists if the good guys don't leave a presence on site; and too little explanation by the president that wars demand domestic sacrifice as well.
Congressional Republicans are in a sense the victim of the administration's mistakes. Yet with the notable exception of Sen. John McCain, too few of those congressional Republicans have done a good enough job of either providing substantive support for the war or explaining that it requires sacrifice or of pressing the administration, from a clearly friendly but still hard-nosed position, for better strategies and tactics.
On domestic security, two issues dominate. The first is Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps this is a case of the "less said, the better" about the administration's incompetent and, later, almost criminally negligent planning, immediate response, and long-term recovery efforts (or opposition to recovery efforts, as the case may be).
The second issue of domestic security is illegal immigration. This is, quite simply, a question of sovereignty and safety. That's why House Republicans rather than Senate Republicans are right to stress border protection and enforcement first. The Senate-passed bill is an abomination of amnesty and unworkability. Nevertheless, when presented with an almost-perfect vehicle to achieve protection and enforcement first while at the same time using free-market solutions for long-term policy and humanitarian needs -- the Pence-Hutchison proposal (scroll down), which incorporates almost the entirety of the House-passed legislation as its most basic building block -- it is the House/National Review conservatives who have balked, such is the fear that the Senate amnesty McCainiacs will find a way to foul it up.
On federal spending, the record is so lousy as to defy belief. Sure, the Capitol solons will claim some nonsense about "slowing the rate of increase of spending" (the defeatist language itself would have been anathema to Republicans 10 years ago), but the only reason they can claim even that "success" is that they have become so adept at hiding actual spending by legislative sleights-of-hand such as re-labeling it as an "emergency" or counting it in future years rather than the one at issue. The fact remains that the federal government's own auditors report that, by standard "accrual accounting" rules that the government requires from big businesses, the annual deficits are already exceeding three-quarters of a trillion dollars. And even that horrible number would be three times worse if the unfunded promises of Social Security and Medicare were included.
Anybody who doesn't believe that voters hate big deficits should take a look at how opposition to big spending drove Ross Perot to the top of the polls before his own nutty conspiracies did him in, or at how such concerns helped drive fake wrestler Jesse Ventura to the Minnesota governorship -- or of how they helped drive the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and how, by the abandonment thereof, Republicans unexpectedly lost seats in 1998. In all those cases, concerns about out-of-control spending drove the electorate.
On household economic health, none of the excellent realities of low inflation, low unemployment, and high and sustained economic growth can overcome the public's bafflement and anger at high energy prices. Historically, Democrats are far more the culprit here -- but it was Republicans who last year pushed through an energy bill with a series of counterproductive gasoline additive requirements and policies that have only added to the costs and to delays at refineries.
Then there are judges. Voters care about judges. Not just ideological voters, but generally apolitical, moderate voters care. And they favor conservative positions. Ordinary Americans resent the misuse of eminent domain to seize private homes for other private wealth. Ordinary Americans believe the Constitution does not tell judges on their own to create homosexual marriage laws out of thin air, or to force states to allow partial-birth abortions, or to force states to eliminate all references to faith in the public square. Most Americans don't think the Constitution forbids states from requiring minors to inform their parents about their abortions. And they think that the feds are out of line in telling them they can't fill in puddles on their own lands because the puddles are within binocular sight of a ditch that empties into a sewer line that empties into a stream that empties into a river that might, if dredged, be a route for commerce.
Finally, the vast majority of Americans don't think that violent criminals should go free because of judge-created technicalities, and they certainly don't think terrorists deserve all the same protections as American citizens. Judges affect all these issues, and when judges themselves are an issue in elections, conservatives win again and again and again.
Yet, as Manny Miranda of the Third Branch Conference has conclusively shown, this Senate's record of confirming judicial nominees of its own party (and for that matter, this administration's diligence in nominating them and fighting for them) is the worst in more than three decades and, in any meaningful context (i.e., Watergate excluded), probably the worst in history.
This is not a record that moves voters to the polls for the Republican Party.
FORTUNATELY FOR REPUBLICANS, there is still time to turn things around. A carefully chosen fight on judges will help. So will a well-chosen fight on the treatment of captured terrorists. So will another, better-conceived fight over the death tax, one that successfully overcomes a Democratic filibuster. So will a well-chosen fight against a liberal spending priority. So will passage of a border-protection-first immigration bill that contains a down-the-road trigger for some of the free-market, pro-legal-immigrant provisions of the Pence-Hutchison proposal.
In all cases, it is the embrace of conservative positions that will bring victory within reach.
What really makes Republican/conservative victory possible, though, are the weakness and the wackiness of their Democratic opponents. Does anybody, yet, know what Democrats actually are for, other than for making President Bush look bad? Does anybody think they won't try to raise taxes? Does anybody think they'll do a better job of protecting the borders or that they won't institute an openly declared amnesty for illegal aliens?
And does anybody doubt that a Democratic congressional majority would try to gin up impeachment charges against the president? That's the last thing, of course, that a majority of the American public wants to see.
Most of all, Americans can easily see from Joe Lieberman's primary loss on Tuesday that the defeatist Left and the Howard Dean screamers control the Democratic Party.
But conservatives must not misunderstand why the Lamont brigades make Democrats look bad. It's not because the Lamont brigades are against the war: So, too, are the majority of Americans now, because the Rumsfeld Pentagon seems to have made such a mess of it. Instead of opposition to the war, per se, being anathema, what's anathema to most Americans is the idea of losing the war.
As in the proverbial saying, the American public doesn't want merely to see its soldiers go home -- although it strongly does want their tour of duty to end -- but it wants to see them "declare victory and go home." The declaration, though, must be believable. In this light, an anti-war Democrat who nevertheless outlines a credible plan for victory would be the strongest candidate of all.
The reason the message of the Lamont victory makes Democrats vulnerable is not that opposition to the war is a political weakness, but that opposition to victory is a political weakness. There is not yet a nationally prominent Democrat who seems to care two figs about actually winning the war. Until and unless there is, Republicans still have a chance to limp across the electoral finish line with their majority intact. It will be conservatives, though, on whose shoulders those limping Republicans will be leaning.
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